OTTUMWA — School board members got a good look Tuesday at what the finances for a new elementary school would look like if paid through the use of bonds.

The district’s facilities committee has recommended construction of a new elementary school on Ottumwa’s north side, similar to what was done with construction of Liberty Elementary in 2013. The expected cost for construction of a new school is similar to the costs associated with renovations if the district kept all the current schools.

The projections are based on the current rates. The first year’s payment would be about $1.8 million, with costs between $980,000 and $1.3 million in the remaining years. Finance Director John Berg said the district can pay for the construction with bonds, without “any direct effect on property taxes in the city.”

Board members struggled Monday to weigh the needs of district buildings with the available money. Ottumwa High School comes into that discussion in the long run. That building is nearing he century mark and has considerable needs.

Board Member Michael Carpenter questioned whether a new elementary school means needs at the high school go unmet.

“Are we committing to doing nothing to the high school for the next 10 years other than just patching things?” he said. Carpenter urged fellow board members to consider what investments would have the best outcomes for education — and students — in Ottumwa.

The answer is mixed. There simply isn’t enough money in the district’s budget to fix everything that needs fixed. The buildings also need significant security improvements. All of the elementary schools on Ottumwa’s north side predate today’s security concerns.

Initially, Wilson Elementary and Horace Mann Elementary are likely candidates for students attending a new school. Those are the oldest elementary schools on the north side and the ones in most urgent need of repairs.

Board Member Jeff Bittner asked whether there were any statistics that evaluated the effects of putting students from what had been local, neighborhood schools together in a combined facility. Bill Allen, a board member who also served on the facilities committee, said there is indirect evidence.

“The best results, the best testing results, of the top 50 schools in the state of Iowa, they averaged 500 students in the building,” he said. “You say small is better, and maybe that’s true. But it isn’t true all the way through.”

There was evident discomfort from some members about making a decision without knowing where construction would take place. Gary Granneman, who also served on the facilities committee, said that’s approaching things in the wrong order.

“Our first decision is not where we’re going to build. It’s are you going to build or not,” he said. “You’re jumping ahead of the process.”

Both questions may be resolved in the near future. Public discussion of purchasing land is not required. Board members signaled they are interested enough in a new school to discuss specific sites, which would be enough to allow for a closed session under Iowa open meetings law.


Matt Milner currently serves as the Courier's Managing Editor. Milner is a trained weather spotter and is usually outside if there are storms. He joined the Courier in 2002.